Justin Smith Is Core of 49ers’ Defense, Which Could Cause Real Problems for Joe Flacco, Ravens

Justin SmithThe San Francisco 49ers made it to the Super Bowl this season on the strength of their defense, and defensive lineman Justin Smith played a key role in that effort.

Smith has never been one to rack up gaudy statistics, managing 70 tackles and 8 1/2 sacks in arguably his best NFL season (2010), and this year was not much different. Smith piled up 66 tackles and took down opposing quarterbacks just three times on the year, good for sixth and third respectively for the 49ers this season.

He wasn’t the 49ers’ most productive defensive player this year. He wasn’t their best lineman. Heck, he wasn’t even the best Smith on the 49ers’ defense — that designation goes to Aldon. But while his numbers will never raise eyebrows or get highlighted in the box score like Aldon’s, Justin Smith is still the most important player on San Francisco’s defense.

With so much Super Bowl talk surrounding the stellar play of defensive studs like Aldon Smith, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Patrick Willis, Justin Smith sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. But the success of the 49ers’ defense still revolves around the impact that Smith has on a weekly basis.

Smith’s value can’t be quantified on the stat sheet like the rest of those guys, though, at least not under his own name. But when considering Aldon’s high number of sacks (19.5) or Willis (120) and Navarro Bowman‘s (149) lofty tackles totals, Smith’s presence is very much apparent.

He’s a big, physical defensive lineman, maybe not quite as big as Vince Wilfork, but his impact is similar. Smith uses his size and strength to bully interior offensive linemen, which helps limit the run game and create pass-rushing opportunities on the outside.

Smith’s physicality and pure power clogs up running lanes for opposing running backs and allows the likes of Willis and Bowman to get to the runner early and close to the line of scrimmage. That presence also directs a lot of attention his way, forcing double teams up the middle and allowing Aldon Smith and linebacker Ahmad Brooks to rush freely off the edge.

It’s no coincidence that in Smith’s absence, the 49ers suffered their worst defeat of the season. San Francisco had by far their worst defensive showing in Week 16, allowing a season-high 171 rushing yards and 42 points in a blowout loss to the Seahawks. The quality of Seattle’s offensive line may have also played a role in that outcome, which should have the Niners even more concerned about playing Baltimore.

The Ravens possess one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, and the strong play of that unit is one of the primary reasons behind their current playoff run. Bryant McKinnie, Michael Oher and Matt Birk headline the group, which has allowed Joe Flacco to be sacked just four times and helped Ray Rice and the backfield bust out for 148 yards per game in three postseason contests.

So, the 49ers are going to have their hands full with this talented Ravens line, but with Justin Smith focused and healthy they won’t be at a disadvantage.

Smith likely won’t have his name engraved on the Super Bowl MVP award and may not even be credited for the impact he’ll have on Sunday. But if the 49ers are the ones hoisting that Lombardi Trophy and basking in the confetti falling all around them on Sunday night, then you can be damn sure that Smith played a big part — even if the box score doesn’t quite show it.

Have a question for Luke Hughes? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes or send it here.

Photo via Facebook/San Francisco 49ers

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